Microsoft Sees More Than Fun in a Game Like Minecraft

September 12, 2014 11:25 am
Microsoft Sees More Than Fun in a Game Like Minecraft

Workers in the office of Mojang, the parent company of Minecraft, in Stockholm.

Parents like Minecraft because it can be a creative outlet for their children. Teachers like the game because it can bring lessons to life. And Microsoft likes the game so much that the tech giant wants to buy Minecraft’s parent company for more than $2 billion.

It is not flashy graphics or an intricate story line luring these groups to the game, however. Minecraft has become a global phenomenon by breaking with those usual conventions.

The point of the game is building things — and tens of millions of people spend hours constructing elaborate structures with digital pickaxes and other tools — and helping others make their own creations.

The popularity of the game has been clear for a couple of years. But the possible deal with Microsoft is the clearest sign yet how important tech giants view games like Minecraft and their growing fan bases. Already, Facebook bought a virtual reality headset maker for $2 billion and the Japanese company SoftBank spent $1.5 billion for a stake in a mobile game developer. Last month, Amazon agreed to buy Twitch, a streaming video site, for more than $1 billion.

More than any of those other deals, though, buying Minecraft for billions would be an acknowledgment that gaming is central to many people’s lives. The rise of mobile devices has put games at the fingertips of practically everyone, an engaging mode of entertainment or merely a time killer.

“It’s as if all these old people who don’t play games woke up and suddenly said, ‘Oh my gosh, gaming is the thing,’ ” said James L. McQuivey, an analyst at Forrester Research.

Microsoft, of course, recognized the significance of games more than a decade ago, when it released the original Xbox gaming console. Since then, though, tectonic shifts in the industry, brought about by the rise of mobile devices and the Internet, have turned consoles into just one of many outlets for playing games.

Minecraft, created in Sweden, stands out because it has been a hit on nearly every digital device. It ranks as the top paid app for the iPhone and second for the iPad. Mojang, Minecraft’s parent company, said in June that sales of the console version of Minecraft had collectively passed those for computers. In all, the company said then, a total of nearly 54 million copies of the game had been sold.

Games have become the most lucrative category of content in the mobile world, and that growth has driven much of the investments in video games by giant tech companies.

In part, companies like Microsoft want to make sure that the top games are available on their devices. Minecraft is not available on Windows Phones, Microsoft’s struggling mobile device. In an email to Microsoft employees this year, Satya Nadella, the company’s chief executive, said that games were “the single biggest digital life category, measured in both time and money spent.”

Minecraft soaks up lots of time, as players can spend months building estates and entire countries, working away with pixelated ladders and building blocks.

The game has succeeded partly by demolishing generational and gender boundaries that usually carve the games business into separate categories. Girls are among the most avid players of Minecraft, and it is one of the few games that parents play with young children. While players can attack the avatars of others in the game, it is a decidedly ungory experience.

In addition, Mojang lets its users create their own game servers on their computers so they can meet up with friends in their own private online worlds. Mojang sells copies of the game, rather than giving Minecraft away and charging players for add-on purchases ,as many publishers do.

“It’s a complete outlier,” said Tero Kuittinen, a managing director at Frank N. Magid Associates, a media consulting firm. “Whatever the industry does, there’s always room for one or two who do the complete opposite.”

In the summer of 2010, Joel Levin was a teacher at the Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in Manhattan when he began playing Minecraft with his daughter, who was then 5 years old. Although his family had no backyard of its own in the city, she constructed a tree house in Minecraft.

His daughter even learned to spell her first word in the game when she pecked out the command “HOME” so that her avatar could teleport back to her treehouse. Mr. Levin was so excited about the educational potential for Minecraft that he began using it as a teaching tool in his second grade technology class.

He eventually quit to co-found a start-up, TeacherGaming, that sells custom-made versions of Minecraft to classrooms for educational purposes. About 2,700 schools in the United States, Europe, Australia and other countries are using the product, MinecraftEdu, to teach science lessons in which students test theories about gravity and history lessons in which they explore models of ancient Babylon.

“People were ready for a game like Minecraft whose purpose was creation instead of destruction,” Mr. Levin said.

Minecraft’s passionate fans have become a valuable tool for promoting the game to others. Thousands of them assemble nearly each year at a convention held by Mojang called MineCon. And Minecraft videos are among the most popular in the games category on YouTube.

“It’s the first game to really capitalize on the generation that watches games almost more than they play,” said Cliff Bleszinski, a veteran game designer.

Minecraft was created in 2009 by Markus Persson, a Swedish game programmer who goes by the gamer name Notch and remains Mojang’s largest shareholder. In a blog post last year, Mr. Persson said he wanted to make a game where players could do almost anything they wanted to.

“No fake doors that don’t lead anywhere, no trees you can’t cut down, and no made-up story being told to the player to motivate them,” he wrote. “Instead, the player would make their own story, and interact with the game world, decide for themselves what they want to do.”

The rising popularity of Minecraft brought great wealth for Mr. Persson, but unwanted pressures too. In June, Mojang faced an outcry from members of the Minecraft community after it changed its policies related to people who run Minecraft servers for profit. Mr. Persson said on Twitter that he was fed up with the criticism.

“Anyone want to buy my share of Mojang so I can move on with my life?” he wrote. “Getting hate for trying to do the right thing is not my gig.”

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